Alice Hannah Holford was born in New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 12 November 1867, the daughter of Annie Brooking and her husband, John Henry Holford, a mariner and later harbourmaster. From an early age her ambition was to nurse. Her aunt, the mother of 13 children, always sent for Alice at times of illness, and local doctors asked her to care for the families of their patients. Apparently she applied to become a probationer at New Plymouth Hospital in 1886 when the first trained matron was appointed, but her father, a man of strict principles, thought it a 'terrible thing' for a daughter to leave home except for marriage. Holford thus did not begin her hospital training until June 1897, shortly before her father's death. She graduated in 1901, the fourth nurse to qualify at New Plymouth Hospital.
Passionately fond of babies, Alice Holford had read that in England all matrons needed midwifery qualifications. As no such training was available in New Zealand, she borrowed £200 to meet her expenses at the Crown Street Women's Hospital, Sydney, and qualified in 1902. She began private nursing when she returned to New Plymouth, and was one of Grace Neill's closest allies in her campaign to register midwives and establish state maternity hospitals where they could train. Holford was the first nurse to apply for state registration when it was introduced in 1902 and probably the second registered midwife under the Midwives Act 1904. When the Dunedin St Helens Hospital opened in September 1905, she was appointed matron. She remained in this position until her retirement in December 1927.
Her responsibilities as matron were heavy. She supervised all normal deliveries and oversaw the training of student midwives and, later, medical students and maternity nurses. At first she faced much opposition from doctors who feared competition, older nurses who thought midwifery brought the nursing profession into disrepute, and the public who regarded the involvement of single young women in childbirth as shameful. These stresses resulted in a breakdown in 1913, when she was forced to take nine months' leave; nevertheless, Holford found her work 'a labour of love'. Together with her lifelong friends, deputy matron Marion Gow and Dr Emily Siedeberg, Holford made St Helens an outstanding success. She brought 'absolute devotion to duty' and superb teaching skills to her task, inspiring the gratitude and affection of patients and pupils alike; many continued to correspond with her and visit her until her death.
Believing nursing to be the profession 'which next to motherhood, is…the highest ideal for women', Alice Holford fought many campaigns to improve and safeguard its status and assisted Neill in designing the registration medal. In 1914 she was one of the delegation which asked the government to allow nurses to undertake active war service, and she enjoyed her wartime matronship of Hanmer Convalescent Home for Soldiers in 1916. She sought adequate salaries for nurses, particularly those in the public service, and served on committees concerned with superannuation, fees and overseas exchanges.
In 1907, aware that New Zealand nurses lacked the sense of professional comradeship that she had enjoyed with the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association, Holford founded a trained nurses' assocation in Dunedin, the forerunner of the Otago branch of the New Zealand Trained Nurses' Association. Holford served the branch as both secretary (1911–13) and president (1919–23), acting as vice president in the intervening years. In 1928 she became honorary life vice president, continuing to attend meetings regularly until she left Dunedin in 1956. Holford was also instrumental in forming the national association in 1909 and remained an active member of its central council until the 1930s.
Alice Holford was particularly concerned to advance nursing through quality education. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she was an early advocate of postgraduate study, raising the issue of university education as early as 1912. She advised girls interested in nursing to take advantage of the home science training offered at the University of Otago, and in 1922 was a leading figure in the planning of a diploma of nursing course at the university. This began in 1925 but was shortlived. Even after her retirement, she continued to argue for improved educational standards and better teaching by ward sisters.
Holding 'service to mankind' to be a measure of an individual's success, Alice Holford was a member of the first committee when the organisation later known as the Plunket Society was founded in 1907; and a member of the central committee of the New Zealand Nurses' Memorial Fund in the 1920s and of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, which she helped revive in 1916. She was also a foundation member of the Otago Women's Club, and was particularly proud of instigating movements that resulted in the establishment of the first women's restroom and the first crèche in Dunedin.
In 1956 Alice Holford suffered a fall and was admitted to Westown Public Hospital, New Plymouth. Here she remained for the rest of her life, happy in her staunch Anglican faith, alert and still interested in outside affairs. She was determined to vote even at 99, having never missed an election. The Nurses' Association tried at least twice to have her honoured but she refused, saying that the 'love & friendship of my nurses & old friends is worth all the OBE & MBEs combined'. She died at the hospital on 22 December 1966.
Alice Holford was a warm, outgoing woman who loved entertaining and 'had a philosophy of making a new friend each year'. Her courage, foresight and integrity made her an influential leader, while her unswerving faith in the worth of her profession brought both inner peace and the respect of those who knew her.